Barry Fantoni: 'Harry knows what I know'

The all-round Sixties cool guy talks to Paul Blezard about the birth of his fictional private investigator, Harry Lipkin

There are many who claim to have been at the forefront of the Sixties explosion of cool, whether in music, art or satire, but few can back it up. Barry Fantoni is today known as the creator of Harry Lipkin, the world's oldest private investigator, but his place in the pantheon was assured early on when the Daily Mirror wrote of him in 1967: “Barry doesn't so much know what is in – he decides it.”

The lad from South London, whose father was a professional painter, attended Archbishop Temple School in Lambeth, "run by sadists and miserable Christians". He established himself as an artist at the age of 14 with the help of Lyle Watson, a red-bearded, socialist teacher who "rolled his own sweaters and knitted his own fags". Watson took Fantoni under his wing, helping him gain a Wedgwood Scholarship to the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts.

Expulsion soon followed, either for painting the faculty naked in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec but with erections ("How was I to know that the school inspectors were coming to the exhibition?") or, according to the school, "for your drunken behaviour, lack of respect for property, theft of student union funds, wrecking the home of a teacher in a state of drunken madness ...." Fantoni's defence, that he was merely holding a radio that a drunken squaddie, who'd crashed the party, had buried in the garden, held no sway. "I was guilty of all but one of those. I didn't wreck the teacher's home. I'd rescued the radio and was holding it, standing by a hole in the garden, next to a spade, covered in earth. What were they going to think? It really wasn't my fault."

He spent a sojourn in France, where work as a clarinettist, saxophonist, trumpeter and drummer kept the money coming in ("I wasn't any good. I just had the kit"), as did importing Olympia Press editions of banned works such as Naked Lunch into the UK. It was also the beginning of what would become lifelong friendships with Michael Horowitz, Ray Davies and Chris Gosden. Fantoni's love of jazz bloomed. He knew Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the "Jazz Baroness" and patron of Thelonious Monk in whose New York hotel suite Charlie Parker had died in 1955. He played with Ray Davies, "the greatest songwriter of the modern generation. A true poet." And he remembers the call from Ray telling him of the birth of the Kinks. He also taught at the Croydon College of Art alongside Bridget Riley and Howard Hodgkin.

On cartooning, Fantoni says: "It was a natural progression from art; the need to put words into pictures", while his feel for satire came from a will to "wound those who were attacking with fists; the miserably corrupt establishment". Drawing for Private Eye led to friendships with Richard Ingram and Peter Cook: "Oh the long phone calls through the night with Peter, both of us in the pit of despair, doing funny voices for each other until the sun came up and hope glimmered. We loved each other in the way that men who are suffering the same way love each other. So much of our livelihoods at the Eye depended on his genius, his style was just so unique."

There has always been a question over Fantoni's leaving Private Eye in 2010, the usual bowing out involving a pine box and a memorial service. Fantoni thinks long and hard before answering. "It was just time to leave. I'd done it. The establishment isn't even worth puncturing any more."

His TV break came after he was asked to design a Pop Art backdrop for Ready, Steady, Go. "When the BBC decided to do a magazine show they wanted to interview the man who designed Ready, Steady, Go. There was me, with loads of hair, being interviewed by a Brylcreemed wearer of ties and, with some gentle steering by Ned Sherrin, they said: 'Here's the future!'" The result was a job presenting A Whole Scene Going On, named after the Bob Dylan track, which went out live, had 16 million viewers and made Fantoni "TV personality of the year", ahead of Cliff Richard, Tom Jones and Mick Jagger. "It was a success because all I did was call my mates and get them on. It let me show the people that had cared for me and seen my promise – my mum, the art teacher and a few others – that I'd done all right."

Now living in a splendidly grand Calais town house with his long-term partner Katie ("Where in London can I buy a place like this for £180,000?"), Fantoni is as passionate and energetic when talking about his fictional detective as he is about his new art movement, Dépêchism, which has haste as its underlying philosophy. The only member of the movement, at present, he is hopeful that it will take off while not really caring whether it does.

On his fictional detective hero, Harry Lipkin, he is clear. "Harry isn't me, but he's seen what I've seen, he knows what I know." His detective is an unusual invention in an age of youthful semi-superhero detectives with highly developed forensic skills and every technological aid at their disposal. At 87, going on 88, the former cop turned gumshoe eschews convenience for the old-fashioned character-analysis method, what today might be considered profiling. A 40-year-old Chevrolet Impala worthy of Columbo moves him from scene to scene; sitting down becomes a priority during questioning; and lemon tea and good kosher food punctuate the day's work. But Harry gets the job done – as does Fantoni, whose great Jewish humour and astutely detailed observation create a tale that rips along at a pace which Lipkin's hips can only remember with fondness.

As Fantoni says, "When I invite my friends to an exhibition, they ask: 'What's the lighting like and will there be a lavatory?' Harry's would ask: 'Are there any stairs and is there a lift?'"

Harry Lipkin PI: The World's Oldest Detective, By Barry Fantoni

Polygon, £12.99


"Harry Lipkin, Private Investigator. Standard rates. My card says 1909, Samuel Gompers Avenue, Warmheart, Florida. There's also a zip code I can never remember. Since no one writes anymore it doesn't bother me. My licence I keep in the desk drawer, along with my .38, a box of slugs, my clothes brush and a spare set of dentures. I might not be the best but I am certainly the oldest."